The question of when one becomes a senior citizen is a topic of interest to a new generation.

Last year, about half of 64-year-olds responding to a Baby Boomer Survey said, the term “senior citizen” does not apply to them because they don’t “feel” like a senior. Instead they describe themselves as still being active and young at heart. In the same survey, 96 percent of 50-year-olds, the youngest of the Baby Boomers, also rejected the term.

The 64-year-olds who embraced the term did so primarily for economic reasons, because they are now eligible for senior discounts.

Interestingly, when asked to pinpoint when “old age” begins, both the oldest and youngest Boomers selected ages well beyond them. The youngest boomers said a person becomes old at age 78, while the oldest boomers said old age begins at 80.

So what does the term “senior citizen” mean, and when exactly does an individual become one? The answer varies widely.

The term first was coined during a 1938 political campaign as a euphemism for “old person,” and now enjoys widespread usage in the common vernacular, legislation, and business. Some dictionaries define “senior citizen” as a person over the age of 65. In everyday speech, the term is often shortened to “senior.”

In legislation, the term applies to the age at which pensions, social security or medical benefits for the elderly become available. In this country, traditionally people have been eligible to retire with full Social Security benefits at age 65. Additionally, one can retire early at age 62 and receive a portion of—but not full—retirement benefits. Because of increases in average life expectancy and stresses on the federal budget, however, Congress has passed legislation to gradually increase the full retirement age from 65 to 67 by 2027.

Many federally and state-funded programs also qualify individuals based on age. For example, there are area agencies on aging that provide home-delivered meals and congregate meals to senior centers and apartment communities. To participate, an individual must be at least 60 years of age or the spouse of someone 60 years of age.
In business applications, the term “senior” often is applied to special discounts and customer loyalty programs which vary by age and store.

Denny’s offers a senior discount menu for people age 55 and over.

Theaters offer senior discounts for those 60 and over.

Goodwill, Salvation Army and some thrift shops have Senior Discount Days for people over the age of 55.

Most automobile insurance companies offer senior discounts for those over the age of 50.

The Humane Society may offer senior discounts for pet adoption for those 50 or older.

Some veterinarians offer senior discounts to pet owners over age 55.

Many national chain stores, restaurants, and fast food eateries offer discounts on certain days for those 60 and older.

Receiving an AARP card in the mail, traumatic for some, is a rite of passage for those turning 50. If one’s spouse is already a member, then one can receive senior discounts regardless of age.

All this to say that the boundary line between middle age and old age in our society cannot be defined exactly because governments and organizations don’t apply standard definitions or meanings.

People may consider themselves seniors because of changes in activities or social roles—when they become grandparents or when their health declines. Some folks consider themselves seniors when they are invited to join AARP, qualify for Medicare, or officially retire from the workplace.

Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who retired from the Supreme Court in 1932 at the age of 90, once said, “Old is fifteen years older than I am now.” He must have been a Boomer at heart!